A Groundbreaking Exploration of the Waters Off Plum Island

All islands are shaped by the waters surrounding them, and Plum Island, which sits just off the end of Orient Point on the North Fork, is no exception.

The island, home since 1954 to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Plum Island Animal Disease Center, has long been seen by the public as the mysterious place where the government conducts research on diseases affecting livestock. But as the lab is slated to close in two years and its activities transferred to a new facility in Kansas, environmentalists are turning their attention to the pristine natural habitats on and surrounding the island.

Their hope? That Plum Island will be preserved in the natural state it has enjoyed due to the limited human presence allowed there.

Scientific divers from InnerSpace Scientific Diving in Albany, working for the New York Natural Heritage Program, spent the first week of August documenting the marine life found in the waters surrounding the island, which they’ve found to be quite pristine.

Their work is an extension of a previous, shorter dive expedition in 2019, the same year that New York State named the waters within 1,500 feet of the island’s shore as a Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Protection Area.

The Innerspace Scientific Diving Crew
The Innerspace Scientific Diving Team (l-r): Dan Marelli, Steve Resler, Janet Klemm and Dave Winkler

“No one had ever done basic research in the waters surrounding the island,” said InnerSpace Scientific Diving owner Steven Resler, whose team conducted both the 2019 dive and the dive this year. “The 2019 report was a very basic survey, more qualitative than quantitative.”

“Plum Island is shaped by the environment in which it is housed,” he added. “Everything we think we hold dear about Plum Island is shaped by the waters around it.”

Mr. Resler, who used to run a New York Department of Environmental Conservation boat out of Greenport decades ago, said his interest in the waters surrounding the island was piqued back then by kelp and boulders he could see from offshore. It wasn’t until the New York Natural Heritage Program got permission to do biological surveys of the island in 2019 that scientific divers were permitted there.

The dive project is being funded by Save the Sound, along with in-kind contributions from local boat captains, businesses and a generous private donor. Save the Sound is coordinating the Preserve Plum Island Coalition of 117 member environmental organizations working to bring about the future conservation of the island.

“When most people see an island, they think of it coming out of the sea. They don’t often think that an island goes down under the waters surrounding it,” said Save the Sound New York Natural Areas Coordinator Louise Harrison, who led a group of reporters on a rendezvous with the divers on their final day of sampling, Friday Aug. 6. “There are numerous underwater habitats that we’re learning about. And all of these together support the entire ecosystem in this archipelago, which begins at Orient Point, goes to Plum Island and to Great Gull Island, Little Gull Island, Fishers Island, and out to Napatree Point in Rhode Island. Plum Island is the biological linchpin of that archipelago.”

Video taken by divers on Aug. 6. | courtesy InnerSpace Scientific Diving

On Aug. 6, with calm seas and an early morning fog breaking up by mid-morning, the divers were all smiles as they emerged from their last dive of the day, on the north side of the island. They’d planned to do five dives, but had already completed seven. They’d chosen their last site because of the rocky coastline, and numerous lobster pots in the area that hinted at great habitat.

“This dive we just did is perhaps the best we’ve done all week. This is one of those ‘wow’ sites, due to the numbers and diversity of both the fauna and algae we’ve got down there,” said Mr. Resler, who said that, during this year’s week-long dive, they found thousands of anemones and tens of thousands of star corals.

The scientific divers begin their work in 30 feet of water, bringing down with them a square of PVC piping, one meter long on each side, known as a quadrat or a meter square; mesh sampling bags; and clipboards with waterproof data sheets that they use to document the presence of organisms they don’t take to the surface. 

They place the quadrat on the sea floor in 30 feet of water, document everything they find within the quadrat, and then move to a 20-foot depth and then 10 feet, sampling a quadrat’s worth of life at each location.

Diver Janet Klemm shared Mr. Resler’s enthusiasm about the week’s work, which she attributed in part to the fact that all four divers had been working together for many years.

“Everybody has a good goal. We all know what we need to do,” she said. “You have to be adaptable. If something changes, as it always done on the water, we have a quick discussion about it, using diving sign language, and adapt.” 

Diver Dan Marelli, an invertebrate biologist by training, was in his element describing what they’d found. 

“It’s not that I don’t like fish, but invertebrates are my specialty,” said Dr. Marelli, who was excited by a find of solitary tunicates, our closest invertebrate relative in the ocean.

“They’re in the order chordata, like us, but they looks like a blob of protoplasm,” he said. “Some people call it a sea squirt. We also saw colonial tunicates and sponges down there, corals and surf clams.”

He then showed off a juvenile surf clam shell covered in tiny slipper shells (genus Crepidula), which he’d found on that day’s dive.

“Everything that’s available in terms of space is pretty much filled with life, either animal life or plant life. Hard structure is limited and there’s a lot of competition for space,” he said. “All the niches are filled. When you get a space, something will fill it.”

“One thing you don’t see here is big predators,” he added. “Fish and lobster are being removed from this natural environment. If you left this place alone completely, it would change and become more vibrant and different.”

Dr. Dan Marelli describes the species found in the waters surrounding Plum Island.

Diver Dave Winkler does much of his work on lakes, where he says divers “tend to find a lot of human impacts — garbage, bottles and plastic.” 

“From what I’ve seen, it’s pristine from that standpoint,” he said. “I’ve been asking the other divers every day if they’ve seen any human impact, and they haven’t seen anything — no fishing line, no bottles, no plastic, nothing. That doesn’t mean it’s not here, but we haven’t seen it and we’ve been all around the island. There’s something to be said for keeping those distances they have mandated. It does keep the human impact down.”

As the divers brought up samples, marine zoologist Meaghan McCormack, who works for the New York Natural Heritage Program, worked on board the two vessels being used for the dives, and at night in a makeshift lab set up in the boathouse event space at the Silver Sands Motel in Greenport, to catalogue a plethora of samples collected both by this dive crew and by another crew from Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine Program in Southold, which worked to survey inshore eelgrass beds surrounding Plum Island.

“This week has been really great,” said Dr. McCormack, who met most of the divers for the first time the week of the dive, after spending the past year planning this work over Zoom. “We haven’t gone through all the samples yet. I’ve been mostly preserving all the animals we find in alcohol to ID them later, separating algae to press on herbarium paper, and cataloguing different kinds of crabs, gastropods and snails.”

The divers also brought GoPro cameras underwater with them to document the fish swimming through their sample areas, which will need to be catalogued.

“This area hasn’t been studied very well in the past, and we’re hoping to get at least a short paper out that characterizes the area,” said Dr. McCormack. “This area is known to be really great for fishing, but we don’t have a lot of data to support which species live here.”

The project earned the support of numerous captains, marinas including the Port of Egypt in Southold, Bob Haase at Duryea’s (formerly Orient by the Sea) in Orient and the Safe Harbor marinas in Greenport, along with businesses including the Orient Country Store, Silver Sands Motel, Northeast Diving Services Inc. and videographers Ilene Merenstein, Nancy Sernag and Eddie O’Connor, who plan to make a film about the project.

Save The Sound’s Long Island Soundkeeper Bill Lucey brought the Soundkeeper’s boat to the North Fork for the week to be used as one of the dive vessels, North Fork boat owner Paul Ahern volunteered his boat, Pauley’s Island, as a second dive boat, while charter boat Captain Mike Bady of The Captain’s Table, based in Greenport, donated his time and expertise to take the crew of reporters out to the dive site Aug. 6. 

“For the last 20 years, this area has helped support my charter business,” said Captain Bady. “ If I can’t keep my home waters clean and pristine and teeming with fish and satisfying my customers, and put something nice on my plate for my wife and I to eat once and a while, it’s a lost cause. This is a very, very special place, no question about it.”

Mr. Ahern agreed. 

“My partner Ilene and I are honored to lend our boat and resources to this great project,” he said. “Our region’s marine environment is vital to our existence and we must protect its beauty and bounty for future generations.”

“I’ve never seen so much positivity, so much excitement and passion, and people just begging to help with the project,”  said Save the Sound’s New York Natural Areas Coordinator Louise Harrison, who is a conservation biologist. “And so donations have been coming in, not just of material nature, but people asking to help. They want to be part of this.”

“We think that when people learn about the natural attributes of Plum Island, they will join us in wanting to preserve what’s there,” she added. “It’s a federally owned facility now. People haven’t been able to go there for years. But it’s being transferred eventually from the Department of Homeland Security to a new use. And the Preserve Plum Island Coalition is attempting to move Plum Island into a conservation status.”

“Some day we hope some archeological work will be done there,” she added. “We know how much indigenous people relied on the very natural resources that we’re looking to protect. It all comes together. We’re looking to preserve this as a refuge, a national park or a New York State park. We think this information is going to go a long way to convincing the people who need to be convinced that we should preserve Plum Island in perpetuity.”

“Natural resources are part of our cultural heritage,” she added. “We depend on natural resources. As we face climate change and we learn our dependencies on the natural world and our vulnerabilities, we need to keep in mind how we share this planet with so many other organisms, so many other creatures, plants and animals. Everything we learn about them is going to help us live together more compatibly.”

Beth Young

Beth Young built her first boat out of driftwood tied together with phragmites behind her family’s apartment above the old Mill Creek Inn in Southold. Nowadays, she spends most of her time kayaking, learning about shellfish, writing newspaper stories, trying to sail a Sunfish, and watching the way the bay changes from day to day. You can send her a message at beth@peconicbathtub.com

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